This interview was conducted by Stephanie Loree.
In “To Wrestle Not Against Flesh and Blood” you chose Aliens as the precursor to the apocalypse. What was the inspiration for this choice?
Well, of course I’m a sucker for aliens. I mean, who isn’t? They’re basically science fiction in its purest, truest form.
But to be honest I don’t know that this is actually a story about aliens.
Leaving aside the question of whether there are actually any aliens in the story at all, to me this story is about the way human beings react to authoritarian regimes. And also, how we navigate a growing inability to settle on a single narrative about the nature of the world.
I believe these are some of the most pressing issues of our current moment. How we as a species decide to handle them will completely determine how our future turns out, maybe if we have a future at all, so they seem like very natural topics to explore in a story about “the end.”
There are major questions of religion and faith presented in this story. Are you drawn to this type of theme particularly, or do you feel it’s part and parcel of apocalyptic literature to consider these kinds of questions?
Yes, I would say I’m drawn to this theme particularly. Though it’s not something I’ve written about much publicly, I was raised in an extremely conservative, isolated religious group. I know what it is to believe so fully and trustingly in an ideology, a way of life, and then to lose that belief. It really changes you. I’ve never quite believed in anything the same way again. To some extent, I’ve always felt myself to be on the outside looking in, aware that most things about this world are only real because we pretend they are. This is the truth at the heart of “To Wrestle Not Against Flesh and Blood,” and its prequel story, “Heaven Is A Place on Planet X.”
Faith and religion are also two completely different things; they intersect in this story, but just barely. Faith is that longing for the fantastic, that crazy desire for a world beyond, behind, or underneath this one, and a chance at the sublime; it makes sane people do insane things. It’s the Paradisers, willing the next world into being around them; it’s Ruth, lighting candles to a goddess she probably only half believes in; it’s Annette, staring wonderingly at the lights in the sky that signal the existence of a story beyond what she’s been told. OK, so, this is a science fiction story, right? But in a broader sense it’s also a fantasy story. It’s about this fantasy that I think nearly every human holds in their core: a longing for something bigger than what we see and better than ourselves. And there are also a lot of people in the world who are willing to exploit that.
Religion, on the other hand, is tribalism. Loyalty to a faction. Allegiance to a narrative. And we see that force at work in this story too.
How did the original idea for your story come about? What inspired you to write it?
The first story—“Heaven Is A Place on Planet X”—was originally written as a stand-alone piece. So when it came to writing this story as a follow-up, I was working within some fairly narrow parameters.
At the heart of that first story is a mystery: are the aliens real at all, or are they simply a convenient fiction being used by one or more governments to justify oppression? Even by the end of the story, this question remains unresolved.
So at first I wasn’t sure how to approach the second story, because I really didn’t want to answer this question. I didn’t want it to become a simple parable of government oppression, nor a story about a war against aliens, because both felt too straightforward and mundane. So I kept asking myself, how can I continue this story while maintaining that ambiguity? Wouldn’t it be obvious now, with no Planet X in sight, what the answer was?
And then I realized, it really wouldn’t be.
That’s the thing about our current media landscape. There is no one established source of facts. Everyone lives in self-created echo chambers of such intensity that there are now competing versions of reality. It doesn’t matter what the truth is, it only matters what you can get enough people to believe.
There is a set of people in this country who believe wholeheartedly that President Obama is a secret Muslim who’s been laboring tirelessly for years to hide his real (Kenyan) birth certificate; that a horrific tragedy like Sandy Hook was staged by the government, complete with paid actors sobbing over the bodies of their dead children; that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by a conniving cartel of scientists across the world. There is also a set of people, probably only slightly overlapping with the first, who believe that vaccines cause autism, that 9/11 was an inside job, and that the moon landing was filmed on a Hollywood set. It’s not that they can’t be swayed by facts; it’s more that they have an entire set of replacement facts that they regard as equally valid.
We saw this unfold quite recently with the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. A week or so after the inciting incident, someone started a completely unattributed rumor that Brown had first assaulted the officer who killed him, causing the officer to suffer an “orbital blowout fracture.” No official sources, no statement or confirmation from the officer or his police department, certainly no hospital records. Just “I heard from somebody who knows.” The rumor spread like wildfire. A blogger picked it up, restated it as fact, and added a random photo of a CT scan, as if it were the missing medical record. Soon it was being reported on the news.
The rumor was eventually retracted, probably because there was no evidence to back it up, nor anyone who was willing to officially go on the record and claim its truth. And yet a sizable portion of white Americans—people who were searching for an excuse to believe that this was a justified killing and not an indefensible murder—are still asserting the truth of this rumor as if it were a proven fact. If there is no evidence to support it, it must be because the evidence was suppressed. If the available information feels counter to what they believe, it’s because there are secret yet powerful forces out there that are selling the rest of the world a lie.
And the thing is, they’re right about one thing—there are powerful forces in our society that benefit from lying to us, that are intentionally shaping our public discourse in nefarious ways. So part of that is real. We can’t trust everything we’re told. We can’t even trust what we see with our own eyes—not always.
In my notes for the story, as I sketched and brainstormed, I wrote the following:
“The apocalypse happened way before the alien ship did, or did not, show up. The apocalypse happened the day that truth became a lie and was replaced with truthiness, that reality became something you could manipulate, and the concept of ‘tolerance’ was twisted and perverted into the idea that everyone is allowed to have their own set of facts.
‘Here’s what happened,’ everyone will say. And society will fracture into a myriad of subcultures, who go on living as if whatever they believe is what’s true. And they can find a way to twist every set of facts to match what they believe. Where things don’t match up, they just straight up deny.
And that’s the real apocalypse. That fracturing. The end of truth.”
That unlocked the whole story for me. The confusion about what really happened doesn’t get cleared up when the tanks come rolling down the streets. Instead it just intensifies.
For me, “To Wrestle Not Against Flesh and Blood” seems ripe for follow-up stories. Is this a world or are these characters we might see more of in the future?
I hardly ever return to the world of a short story. I tend to feel like I’ve expended all the energy and momentum in that one story and to revisit it is not as exciting. That kind of goes hand in hand with my general theory about short stories, which is that I much prefer them when they leave something unfinished.
However, Annette and Jane, the two sisters in this story, may make an appearance in my final installment to the trilogy.
Can you tell us about any of your current projects or upcoming publications?
The Steampunk User’s Manual, which I co-authored with Jeff VanderMeer, will be out from Abrams Image early this October. It’s a follow-up to The Steampunk Bible by Jeff VanderMeer and S. J. Chambers. While The Steampunk Bible was more of a general introduction to the field, The Steampunk User’s Manual doubles as both an art book and a creative how-to guide, and features tons of amazing art, gorgeous images, and pragmatic advice from working artists and well-known Steampunkers. It was a huge project with many, many contributors and we’re very excited to see it reach the shelves.